I just learned of the death of Pat Ryan, former managing editor (that is, editor-in-chief anywhere other than Time Inc.) of People and Life magazines. Pat was my mentor and protector. I owe her my career.
Pat hired me at People. She made me the first TV critic there. She encouraged me to submit an idea I had for a magazine called Entertainment Weekly. And she saved me from the sins of synergy. A few personal tales of mine in memory of Pat….
They never hired newspaper people at Time Inc., I was told. We weren’t slick enough. But I got a week’s tryout there as a writer. Each morning, I got a file of reporter’s notes — 30 pages or more — and piles of clips with instructions to turn it into 120 pithily packed — it’s there that I learned one could throw in more material between dashes — and almost always alliterative lines of copy. I did that the first morning and asked for the next assignment but was told there wasn’t anything. Same thing happened the next morning and the next: five days, five stories. At the end, Pat hired me. As I left, an old hand at the magazine, Cranston Jones (there were no Bob Joneses at Time Inc., only a Cranston and a Landon at People), took me aside and balled me out: “Don’t you ever do that again.” I had no idea what “that” meant until I arrived and attended my first writers’ meeting under Pat. “People, people,” she said after first instructing the women on staff not to follow her into the ladies room with story pitches, “we have to get better. You all should be trying to write one story a week.” Aha.
I had moved to New York and People from San Francisco and the Examiner (“What,” my editor there, Jim Willse, said upon hearing the news, “got tired of journalism did you?”). I quickly missed California and looked to move back. The L.A. Times talked to me about becoming TV critic but couldn’t get the job approved so they offered me L.A. Olympics arts correspondent. I never would have taken that. I don’t do folk dances. But my good friend and senior editor Peter Travers, unbeknownst to me, went to Pat telling her the way to keep me was to make me TV critic. And so she did.
I remember the day Pat got the latest cover sales report and screamed down the hall at me: “TV’s dead, Jarvis! It’s dead!” You see, her predecessors at People had an easy go of it picking covers: Put a Top 10 show on the cover and it’d sell. But under Pat’s watch and my tenure covering TV, choice exploded with cable boxes and newfangled VCRs, audience fragmented, and not everybody watched Dynasty anymore. That’s when People expanded to covering the events in the stars’ lives: births, deaths (there was a time when I said we should have renamed the magazine Dead People), diseases, affairs — bodily fluids journalism. That’s when flacks realized that they had the power to sell magazines by granting access to their stars and so the balance of power shifted and Pat had to deal with press agents trying to negotiate approval of writers, quotes, and covers (she never budged).
That’s also when Pat brilliantly invented new franchises. I’d like to think I was in the cover billing meeting when she stared at a picture of blue-eyed Mel Gibson with no idea about what to say about another vacuous hunk and finally, in wry desperation, she said, “Oh, why don’t we just call him the sexiest man alive.” Eureka.
It took time for HBO to produce some of the best TV in history. When it started inside Time Inc., it was little more than an excuse to rerun movies and show bare breasts and as TV critic, I said so. The then-CEO of HBO would shout up the ladder to muzzle me and Pat would shout back down telling him to fuck off. When I panned one too many Hallmark Hall of Fame treacklefests and Hallmark canceled its advertising (no small amount), she saved me from business-side pressure.
I’ve already told the story of how Pat protected me from the wrath of Editor-in-Chief (there was only one editor-in-chief in all of Time Inc.) Henry Grunwald when I dared give a good review to a show critical of Henry’s mentor, Whitaker Chambers. She risked her job to do the right thing. From her, I learned that all the rule books and industry standards in the world don’t stack up against one brave editor willing to take an ethical stand.
And then there was E.W. That same fragmentation that made picking People covers hell gave me the idea to start a magazine that would concentrate again on products over personalities. Pat encouraged me to submit it and sympathized when Grunwald rejected it. By the time the idea finally showed signs of life, almost six years later, she was editor of Life and the executives at Time Inc. pitted us against each other. Pat wanted to make Life weekly to rejuvenate and save it; I wanted to start E.W., and the 34th floor said only one of us would win. But Pat was always smarter than they were. She quietly sat me down and continued to mentor me. “Jarvis,” she said, “you’re not one of them. You’re an outsider. They’re going to use you to start the magazine because they don’t understand it and then they’ll get rid of you.” She was prescient.
Pat was also not one of them. She was a woman. Time Inc. then was still a patrician — read: sexist — institution that didn’t know how to handle powerful women, especially one who was ambitious enough to rise from Katharine-Gibbs-trained secretary to editor of one rich and one iconic magazine while always remaining gracious, loyal, decent, and clever. They fired Pat in 1989 and wouldn’t even give her the courtesy of a reason.
Pat retired to her beloved Maine with Ray Cave, also the former editor of Sports Illustrated and Time. Apart from taking on a few projects, she left the spotlight that she never much liked. I so regret not visiting to thank her for all she did for me.